Thoughts about Growth

While we’re waiting to hear the latest news from the legislature about transportation funding, I’d like to introduce our readers to a writer I’ve been following for the past year.

Charles Marohn is Executive Director and co-founder of Strong Towns, whose mission is: “The mission of Strong Towns is to support a model for growth that allows America’s towns to become financially strong and resilient.”

For the best introduction to the ideas behind Strong Towns, I suggest Mr. Marohn’s article The Growth Ponzi Scheme. That article is a summary of a longer series of posts and I highly recommend the entire series:

How do these ideas relate to our current ferry funding crisis? Not to oversimplify things too much, but our current situation boils down to three things:

  1. A reliance on long-term debt for infrastructure funding.
  2. A reliance on growth projections as to the amount of money available to finance that debt.
  3. Funding new construction but not providing for maintenance & replacement of existing infrastructure.

As we are seeing all too clearly now, our projections about how much debt we could incur, and our ability to finance that debt, have been wildly exaggerated. Transportation bonds are completely tapped out, yet we will be paying debt service on them for decades. The mechanism designed to pay that debt service (primarily gas tax revenues) are far short of what had been projected when the bonds were issued — and falling. We not only do not have enough money to build planned new transportation projects, we do not have enough money to maintain what infrastructure we already have.

The specter of severe service disruptions for ferry-dependent communities is frightening to imagine. Yet I believe we must start to consider what our communities can do to adapt to service reductions and, possibly, the failure of the State to update our aging fleet in a timely manner. Marohn talks about creating resilient communities, and offers these Placemaking Principles for Strong Towns. Many of these principles are based on the idea that resilient communities can create economic value by using our resources more wisely. In a time where we seem to be less and less certain of our ability to finance growth through debt, and the loss of Federal and State money for local communities, I think it is well worth our time to consider working together to create our own Strong Towns.



3 thoughts on “Thoughts about Growth

  1. Randall Waugh

    Thanks for the links Adrienne,
    If I understand Mr. Marohn’s point, he suggests that as towns and communities we must live within our means. Financing projects by borrowing against rosy fiscal projections only work while the “Ponzi” system works.
    The ferry system expanded to accommodate the housing boom on the Olympic Peninsula and to some extent in the San Juans. The highways and ferry system have been designed and paid for with debt as if the boom will never end. Wider roads, bigger ferries, more ferries are part of the dream that everything will continue as it has. Like the Once-lers in the Lorax we just keep biggering and biggering and the ferries in Winter pass quickly quite empty.

    We rely on long term debt to pay for transportation infrastructure.
    We rely on growth projections to finance the debt.
    We build new roads and ferries before we maintain the existing facilities.

    I doubt the people of Brainerd, Minnesota of the late 19th century that Mr. Marohn mentions would see the sense of running enormous ferries and forever widening roads to accommodate commuter traffic. I agree with you that we must “consider what our communities can do to adapt to service reductions.”

  2. Adrienne Adams Post author

    Thank you for your comments, Randall. As I think about the future of our little county and its communities, I imagine what our place will be as Puget Sound becomes more urban. It’s clear that rural communities in beautiful places — like ours— will become even more precious for city-dwellers. As exciting and dynamic as cities are, they can often best be appreciated by getting away from them for a while. And it’s becoming clear that the auto-dependent suburb and exurbs are an unsustainable model of development, not only because if their poor resource use, but because of the monocultural, soul-deadening atmosphere that seems to predominate.

    Currently, the San Juans function a lot like an exurban community: auto-dependent and lacking robust economic autonomy. But the ferries also offer us opportunities. I envision strong multi-modal connections between the Anacortes ferry dock and urban Puget Sound communities: frequent bus connections to the Skagit transit hub, thence to express buses and Sounder trains to Vancouver, Seattle, Olympia, and Portland. More reliable options for car-free travel to the San Juans would reduce high season congestion and vastly reduce the hassle that has lately characterized a “weekend getaway” to the islands. I believe it is in our best interest to push hard for multi-modal connections, as this can increase the number of visitors even with service reductions.

    I also envision more folks from the surrounding urban areas coming for something other than a traditional “sloth and bloat” weekend. Week- or even month-long mini sabbaticals, engaged in nature study, community building projects, skillshares, art workshops, planting and harvest work parties, etc. In other words, Islanders can begin to see tourists not as simply consumers of goods and services, but people who desire a connection to “real” work and the experience of life in a small rural community.

    The ferries are our highways, yes, but they are more than mere floating platforms for cars and delivery trucks. They are a physical expression of the metaphor to slow down, take in the view, chill and reconnect.

    1. CC Stone

      Hi Adrienne, I thought this was a wonderfully thoughtful piece! I’d like to publish it on our “Ferry Interesting” blog on the Vashon Beachcomber…would that be OK with you?
      Thanks, CC Stone


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